Black star rising

Issue: 123

Ken Olende

Jeffrey B Perry, Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 (Colombia University, 2008), £27

Hubert Harrison was a towering figure in US black and socialist politics in the early years of the 20th century. He was known as the “father of Harlem radicalism” but has now almost disappeared from the history books. Jeffrey B Perry has already edited a collection of Harrison’s writings entitled A Hubert Harrison Reader (Wesleyan University, 2001). He is owed a serious debt of thanks for this, the first part of his exhaustive two-part biography, using Harrison’s own journals and a sympathetic understanding of the time. It rescues a fascinating historical figure from obscurity, and allows us to see how far ahead of its time much of his analysis was.

The level of racism in the US in which Harrison became politicised was not simply dreadful—it was getting worse. The American Federation of Labour (AFL) union federation had passed through a radical phase in the 1890s, in which it appealed to black workers, who responded enthusiastically. Indeed, Philip S Foner records, “In the opening decade of the 20th century, Southern black workers, far from being ‘opposed to unions’, were often among the most militant unionists”.1 But the brief flowering of radicalism was beaten back. The AFL retreated to support almost exclusively white craft unions. The segregationist Jim Crow laws had begun to appear across the Southern states at the end of the 19th century. New laws were enacted right through the period covered by this book.

The competing strategies of Booker T Washington and WEB Du Bois led the struggle against racism. Washington believed discrimination would end once black people had shown through education and hard work that they were worthy of equality. He set up the Tuskegee institute as a centre for such education. By 1915, however, Du Bois’s more radical ideas were dominant. He was an activist who demanded equality and was a leader of the new multi-racial National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). However, he still looked to organising a minority of black people, what he called the “talented tenth”, which came to annoy Harrison, who wished to bring the mass of black people into the struggle.

Harrison arrived in New York in 1900 from St Croix in the West Indies. His politics shifted from an initial flirtation with Republicanism—which had been the party of Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves—through free thought and socialism. He was also a powerful public speaker and always argued for political organisation. His interests were wide ranging. He was an advocate of women’s rights, and, as well as discussing on the origins of racism and how to overthrow capitalism, he wrote on religion, theatre and evolution, and had a deep interest in religion and culture.

Many of Harrison’s theoretical insights are striking. At the end of 1911 he produced five articles on “The Negro and Socialism”. Perry comments that this was “the first such effort at comprehensive analysis by an African American in US socialist history, and on many points it evidences a profound and still incisive understanding” (p159). Perry summarises Harrison’s argument: “The historic roots…were ‘found in slavery’ and the need to supply that system with labourers… [Though he pointed out that] black people were not the first slaves in North America and that ‘under Spanish rule, the Indians of Florida and California had been enslaved, and under English rule white men, women and children from Ireland had been sold into slavery’… Black people were treated as chattels, but, ‘to the credit of our common human nature’, steps had to be taken ‘to reconcile the public mind to the system of slavery’. This reconciliation was accomplished by nurturing the belief ‘that the slaves were not fully human’ and ‘wherever the system was most profitable,’ that belief ‘was strongest’” (p159).

Harrison went on to argue that racism could not be seen as innate, citing examples from the interest of slave owners in black women to the need for legislation to enact segregation. He argued that capitalists foster racism to divide workers. Neither black nor white gain because, with a divided working class, white workers can be told that “other wage slaves are doing as hard work or harder and doing it for less” (p162).

In Capital Karl Marx argued, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” But Marx did not theorise how racism had developed. It was not until the 1940s that the explanation of how racism developed out of slavery was fully articulated in the writings of Eric Williams and CLR James. I am not aware of anyone else prior to the First World War who approached this level of sophistication. Harrison maintained this view even as he moved to a more overtly race centred politics.

Perry writes, “In 1926 [Harrison] explained, ‘The conception now prevailing that white people are superior and darker people inferior arose as the mental reflex of a social fact. The fact was the military and political dominations exercised by European whites over the darker people who as late as the 14th century had been superior to them.’ He added that the King James version of the Bible ‘does not contain the word “race” in our modern sense of a breed of people…as late as 1611 our modern idea of race had not yet arisen, or had not found expression in the English language’” (p121).

Harrison also opposed the First World War, arguing that capitalist competition inevitably leads to armed conflict, “Hence beaks and claws must be provided beforehand against the day of conflict, and hence the exploitation of white men in Europe and America becomes the reason for the exploitation of black and brown and yellow men in Africa and Asia. And therefore it is hypocritical and absurd to pretend that the capitalist nations can ever intend to abolish wars” (p232).

He wrote much of the above in publications associated with the Socialist Party. This had been formed in 1901. It built significant support in the early years of the 20th century. While it was usually dominated by conservative elements, it contained some serious revolutionary socialists. Its presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, won over 900,000 votes in 1912. The party also boasted two Congressmen and many state legislators and mayors. It was later weakened by rows over its opposition to the First World War and how to respond to the Russian Revolution in 1917.

Within the Socialist Party a paternalistic view of black people as at best deprived of education and at worst degenerate held sway. Harrison challenged this. He came to work as a full-time organiser for the party in New York, after being sacked from his job as a post office clerk for his political activity. Initially he was optimistic about the possibilities of winning black workers to socialism.

He argued for an organised strategy to recruit a layer of black workers. He was asked if this meant separate black branches, something that Du Bois specifically objected to. Harrison stated, “There is no intention to establish separate branches or separate organisations for coloured people.” However, since black people had a legitimate suspicion of white-led organisations they must be approached, “in part at least, by men of their own race and the work must be done where Negroes ‘most do congregate’” (p170). But Harrison’s attempt to organise in this field was undermined by the party, which offered no support.

Harrison demanded that the party stopped allowing racism within its ranks. He asked, “Southernism or socialism—which? Is it to be the white half of the working class against the black half, or all of the working class? Can we hope to triumph over capitalism with one half of the working class against us?” (p183). The Socialist Party’s 1912 congress passed motions favouring the exclusion of Asian immigrants. Race was put ahead of class and Harrison’s views were marginalised. He was pushed out of the party both because of its line on racism and its drift away from anything that could be defined as revolutionary socialism.

He went on to became active in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), building support for a number of major strikes in this period and challenging the AFL’s complacency. In 1913 he declared to a rally, “We socialists must go to the workers to hear what we must do. The revolution is not coming from above, remember, but from below, working its way up from the depths” (p210). The freedom to speak like this was a relief after the Socialist Party, even if his words also reflect the IWW’s admiration of spontaneity at the expense of any consistent and sustained organisation.

In late 1915 Harrison became more concerned with organising Harlem’s black community. He increasingly believed that a “race first” view was necessary. Perry says he regarded this as “a self-defence measure under existing social conditions and that it was a necessary corrective to white supremacy” (p278). By 1920 he would advocate separate black unions.

Harrison’s shift was a tragic response to the behaviour of the left in this period. Take, for instance, William Z Foster, a former member of both the Socialist Party and the IWW, who would become a leading Communist. Foster wrote a history of the great steel strike of 1919. A section of this attacks black workers for their “open hostility” to organised labour, complaining that they were prepared to be used as strikebreakers and took a “keen delight in stealing the white men’s jobs”.

Harrison reviewed the book, saying, “It is conceded on all sides that the white organised labour movement has been and still is pronouncedly anti-Negro. And so long as that remains true, just so long will any self-respecting Negro leaders abstain from urging the labouring masses of their race to join forces with the stupid and shortsighted labour oligarchy which refuses to join forces with them” (p279). Harrison may have been wrong to advocate separate unions but his point stands. Unless the socialist movement actively welcomes the oppressed it has no right to condemn them for not taking part.

In 1917 Harrison launched the Liberty League, a broad organisation which promoted black pride, and demanded social change, equality for black people and specifically an end to lynching. A new paper, The Voice, argued for the league’s policies and galvanised political discussion in Harlem. At its peak it reached a weekly readership of 55,000 but it struggled both because it faced hostility from the black political establishment and because it refused to take adverts for hair straightening and skin lightening products.

He became involved in a campaign against lynching, demanding that, unless the federal government took action to stop this, black Americans should “rise against the government, just as the Irish against England” (p286). That summer a race riot over the use of black labour in St Louis killed at least 39 people. Shamefully Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, said the cause was “the excessive and abnormal number of Negroes” in the city.

The Liberty League took a hard line. Harrison advised black people to “supply themselves with rifles and fight if necessary to defend their lives and property”. He commented on the hypocrisy of US intervention in the First World War: “While they are talking about fighting for freedom and the Stars and Stripes, here at home the whites apply the torch to the black men’s homes, and bullets, clubs and stones to their bodies” (p299).

Some Liberty League supporters were unhappy with Harrison’s confrontational radicalism and the anti-imperialism of his statements. His consistent opposition to capitalism worried many black leaders. He had built powerful arguments against capitalism and racism, but not an organisation that agreed wholeheartedly with his ideas.

Nonetheless Harrison felt the potential for radical organisation was growing. Despite his differences with the Socialist Party he was heartened by the increase in its vote in New York in the 1917 elections. He was also excited by the active participation in the election by black voters that meant they could not be treated as a block to be bought. In the summer of 1918 Harrison was central to organising a Liberty Congress in Washington DC, demanding rights for black Americans. The meeting had 115 delegates from 35 states and marks the high water mark of Harrison’s influence.

From here on he would be overshadowed by a rival movement, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which had been launched in New York in 1917 in direct competition with Harrison’s league. Harrison would soon accept the post of editor of UNIA’s paper Negro World.

In some ways this first volume follows the most interesting part of Harrison’s life for socialists. But the later period, when he worked in a genuine mass movement, trying to steer Garvey’s UNIA left, is also fascinating. It is easy to get lost in “what if” speculations but it’s hard not to imagine what might have happened had Harrison not been pushed away from the socialist left. He was the leading radical activist in Harlem at the time of Garvey’s arrival. Imagine if a Marxist with a significant following had been operating in Harlem, working with the fledgling Communist Party, and he had managed to channel the anger of the black masses.

Mark Naison has written about the struggle that Communists faced in trying to gain a foothold among black radicals in Harlem. He notes, “For most of the 1920s the Communist Party represented a marginal phenomenon in Harlem’s political life.” Furthermore, “Most Harlem organisations…regarded capitalism as a fact of life, if not a positive good”.2 Naison explains how the first black leaders were recruited after the party was prodded from Russia. Several had already been in Harrison’s orbit, notably Cyril Briggs. But by 1921 Harrison is reported to have refused Communist money to help the Liberty League, saying he didn’t want to compromise the independence of his black organisation. It is a sad comment on the treatment meted out to such a vibrant and fascinating revolutionary.


1: Philip S Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1916-1981 (International Publishers, 1982), p89.

2: Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem During the Depression (Grove, 1985), p3.